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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Hack, Slash, Squish: Gender and Sex In Season One of Game of Thrones

October 23rd, 2012 at 16:11

THIS POST SPOILS ALL THE THINGS FOR SEASON ONE.
PLEASE DON’T SPOIL SEASONS 2 OR 3 IN COMMENTS. NO I HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS EITHER.

OK everyone’s way ahead of me on this one, even (to her great delight), my Mum. Once I actually sat down to watch this first season of Game of Thrones, I found myself enjoying it way more than the waves of (mostly feminist) internet critique suggested I would.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, possibly. Anyhow, here are my reflections on the show:

[Warning, text probably not work safe, though the images should be fine, presuming that your workplace is non judgemental about fantasy fiction as a whole, which is presuming quite a lot, really, what do I know, my workplace is me and the three-year-old. She hasn’t watched the show.]

TEN THOUGHTS ABOUT GAME OF THRONES SEASON ONE:

1. SEX.
The sex scenes are quite confronting early on, not because they are graphic (you’ve read my books, right?) but because they are so uniformly degrading to the women involved. I think it’s interesting that in the first couple of episodes, almost every coupling involves the woman being “taken roughly from behind”, and apparently not enjoying herself all that much in comparison to her male partner. Even the incestuous shag on a tower that is plot-relevant does it that way, and that’s the one that felt to me least convincing. If the queen was going to go to all the trouble and risk of shagging her brother, why wouldn’t she want to look him in the face while doing it?

Oh, wait, answered my own question there.

The main trouble of course with the repetition of this ‘ladies, grit your teeth and think of Valhalla’ attitude to sex in the early episodes, apart from the fact that it makes the Game of Thrones smutty bits boring very fast (I don’t think that was the effect they were going for?) is that the actresses involved (and to some extent the actors) look as if they are mostly worried about not falling over.

Find a bed, people. Fewer potential health and safety problems!

2. DAENERYS
This leads me to Daenerys, the character who progressed from being a political pawn handed over as marriage meat to a woman taking charge of her own destiny. Yes, sometimes getting to face your husband while having sex with him counts as character development!

I know that many people were upset by the first scene in which the consummation of her marriage is framed as a rape scene, and understandably so. Luckily for me I had read so much analysis of this scene ahead of time that I was prepared for it. I don’t want to be one of those people who is all ‘hey it’s historically accurate so it’s FINE’ but in this case I think you can argue that her powerlessness in the early episodes are an essential part of her character arc. Which doesn’t make it less distressing.

They were going for shock value in the first episode, that much is certain, and while I found Daenerys’ progression through season one quite satisfying at a narrative level, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the actress’s body is repeatedly depicted in disturbing and unsettling ways to convey truths about the culture of this world that could probably have been done in subtler ways.

It’s also very uncomfortable to see that a big part of her story is that of a white woman learning to take command of the ‘savage’ brown people, and I see why many people find that aspect hard to stomach. Personally I think that is at least partly balanced out by the fact that Daenerys’ equally blond brother is the most horrible person on that particular continent, and that conquering and escaping his influence is such a big aspect of her character arc, but I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the racial aspects of this story a major turn off.

From a gender point of view, I found Daenerys to be a compelling example of historical/fantasy women who find power even when the society is determined to keep them powerless. There are lots of those women in this show, more than I expected to find.

3. SPEAKING OF WOMEN TAKING THEIR OWN POWER, CATELYN STARK.
Catelyn is set up very much as the wife and mother, matriarch to a large household, but right from the start we see her political awareness and interests. And yes, a big driving force of her in this story is her fury and determination to avenge the hurt done to her youngest son (ie an extension of her motherly duty), but I love the fact that in a show that talks constantly about ‘woman’s weapons’ (i.e. Poison) and is wall to wall prostitutes, we get a grown up lady character who leaps on a horse and rides from one end of the country to the other to get justice.

Sure, she’s not always right, but damn she’s feisty! You can see what Sean Bean saw in her. After HBO’s Rome it’s really nice to see a matronly character who gets to do more than snipe at people at parties. Not that the women of HBO’s Rome didn’t snipe brilliantly at parties, but sometimes ladies over thirty years old do like to get out and about and have adventures.

I also really enjoy Catelyn role in the later episodes of the season, where she has to watch her eldest son become a war commander, and is quite blatantly restraining herself from treating him like the baby boy he is.

I have forgiven her, in other words, for not being Jennifer Ehle. Just.

4. LATE BREASTFEEDING = INSANITY WTF
I have OPINIONS about the gratuitous use of the ‘woman breastfeeds a child past the traditional age of breastfeeding in order to show she is batshit crazy’ trope that we got more than once with Catelyn’s sister. But you can probably guess what those opinions are. So let’s move on. (I noticed what you did there, HBO, and it made me cranky)

“Oh, Humperdinck. You just weren’t blond enough for me.”

5. QUEEN OF EVERYTHING.
Speaking of sniping indoors, it’s a good thing that this isn’t Catelyn’s specialty, because Cersei Lannister would wipe the floor with her. I am loving this character, her villainous charisma and her utter ruthlessness. Who would win in a duel between Cersei and Atia of the Julii? I don’t know but I would watch the hell out of that show!

It’s so rare to get a really crunchy female villain who is also allowed to be human and intelligent, and Cersei is both. I particularly liked the scene where she and her husband, Henry VIII (I know he has a real name, but come on, who are we kidding here?) sat down and had a frank discussion about their history and their marriage, even managing to share a bittersweet joke or two. There are so many layers in this show, and I think the way that the effect of arranged marriages have on a society from a psychological point of view comes across in a complex and interesting way.
Mostly, though, Cersei terrifies me. I found myself constantly yelling advice inside my head to various characters along the lines of DO WHATEVER CERSEI WANTS, YOU DON’T WANT TO UPSET HER! Powerful lady is powerful.

I do find it a little disconcerting how much this devastating, cruel and ruthless woman looks exactly like Buttercup from The Princess Bride. Once you have seen it, you cannot unsee it! You’re welcome.

6. SEXPOSITION FOR FUN AND PROFIT
I’m sure I didn’t invent the word ‘sexposition’ – apart from anything it has to be scrawled in mile high letters on every whiteboard at HBO studios, right? I do find it deeply amusing, though, how many of the ‘now it’s time to explain the political infrastructure/historical climate/weather/dragons’ scenes are conveyed while two characters are slightly distracted by having sex with each other, or watching sex occur across the room.

Occasionally the children do get to play the exposition game by doing their homework loudly or being randomly verbally tested by adults, but these scenes are about 1 to every 4-5 sexposition scenes.

This, fantasy writers, is now to deal with info dump. ADD SMUT! While much of the sexposition is utterly gratuitous, I cannot disapprove, because once you realise what they’re doing (apparently George RR has publicly admitted that is exactly what they’re doing) it is hilarious.

7. SQUELCH.
The person most deserving of an Emmy for Game of Thrones is whomever is in charge of sound effects. Sure, the scenery is gorgeous and beautifully rendered, the performances are awesome, and so on, but have you HEARD what happens during gory death scenes (cough, and many of the sexposition scenes)? Squelch squelch squelch.

8. THE PROSTITUTION SATURATION.

So, prostitutes. There are a metric ton of prostitutes and brothels in this story. That’s how you know it is gritty and “realistic,” right?

Well, um, yes, to a point. From a historical perspective I think that this aspect of society often gets ignored or rendered invisible in history/fantasy fiction, and it’s a pretty vital aspect to many societies and how they function. I do appreciate the fact that this is depicted in Game of Thrones as an everyday part of life, and that the sex industry is not always glamorised, nor treated as the most degrading thing in the universe.

But oh boy. This show is so very proud of the fact that it is edgy enough to include prostitution, isn’t it? So, so proud of themselves. I think they could pare down the scenes and references by about half and still get the effect they need. And possibly occasionally have a whole episode in which it’s barely mentioned. You’d think.

The scripts Game of Thrones have made a fair stab at humanising the women involved, giving actual characterisation to some of the prostitutes/sex slaves such as Roz the redhead from the Stark local brothel, Daenerys’ servant who teaches her how to pleasure her husband, and Tyrion’s girlfriend Shae. The ‘truth game’ scene in the final episode in which Shae challenges every cliche Tyrion believes about the type of woman she is, and he in turn reveals why he is such a gratuitous hirer of women, goes a long way to redeeming the prostitution saturation of the show.

But the scenes in which prostitutes are used as set decoration, saucy punctuation to a scene, blokey jokes, sexposition, random nudity, to make Catelyn Stark do that shocked face, to prove that Tyron Lannister is awesome at the sex, orgies, and so on, far outnumber the handful of scenes in which the women in question get speaking lines and/or to show that they are humans.

Is the sex industry as thematically significant in the books as it is in the TV show? Or is this just an excuse for the show to have lots of sexposition while keeping many of the other female characters “pure”? Cos I have to say, there isn’t a whole lot of happy marital/romantic sex in the show to balance it out.

9. THE CASE FOR SANSA STARK
I’ve heard that there is a great deal of hatred directed at Sansa as a character, which seems odd to me – sure, she’s less easy to like than her honest, plucky and sword-mad little sister, but she’s also a young woman who has been placed in an impossible, completely vulnerable position.

Yes, she’s a collaborator, and every time she is put in a difficult position, she does exactly what she is told to do, the most political choice to stay on the right side of the ruling power. But what options does she have?

Apparently many people were surprised when Ned Stark got beheaded at the end of Season One. We found ourselves quite bewildered that he survived as long as he did. Man, he was all pride and no compromise, wasn’t he? Sansa’s father’s imprisonment and death shows exactly what happens to those who rebel against the Lannisters and their cruelty. He could have compromised, have bent his ideals and lived to win at a more politic moment, but instead he chose to let his honour hang out where it could be seen by everyone, and he got it chopped off along with his head.

Arya makes exactly the same types of choices as their father – she refuses to compromise her honour or what she believes in, regularly voices her outrage, and only through sheer luck and the support of people around her manages to survive the season. She doesn’t live because of her actions or because she is clever, but because the circumstances of the story (and the author himself) did not yet choose to punish her.

Which is not to say Arya is not cute and awesome, particularly when learning her sword skills, because she is. But I think it’s worth discussing the fact that the female characters who become fan favourites often do so because they are perceived as ‘cool’ and often that coolness is defined as ‘acts like a male character while being cute’. Arya’s an easy character to like.

Sansa, though, has no lucky breaks or carefully-placed allies. Abandoned in a court with no friends and a father whose ideals are more important to him than the safety of his family (I’m not saying ideals or honour are bad, but diplomacy was not Ned Stark’s superpower, and he could have done a much better job of getting his daughters out of the city before he decided to dig his heels in and make a stand for those ideals), all she can do is what vulnerable aristocratic women have always done – she makes concessions.

Sansa’s only mistake is to assume that doing everything that Cersei Lannister tells her is the best option, and that she will be in a position to help those she loves by behaving as a ‘good girl.’ It’s hard to argue that she made the wrong choice even then because all the available information suggested it was the best path.

It’s Joffrey’s lack of respect for ‘the rules’ that throws everything out of the window, and the shock on Cersei’s face when he decides to play tyrant all on his own makes it clear that she would certainly have not made those same choices. So Sansa is stuck, an abused girlfriend to a mad young king, and she’s the one who has to watch her father beheaded in front of her – no one shields her eyes as they do with Arya! It’s too late for her to start investing in a “dance master” of her own. All she can do is keep nodding and smiling and hoping that a chance may come, some time in the future, to make things better for herself.

Sansa and Ned both represent extreme examples of reaction to an impossible situation, the rock and the hard place. They’re both screwed, but she at least is still alive, and where there’s life there’s hope, right?
I really hope there’s hope. I worry about her.

Arya, meanwhile, I don’t worry about much at all. I can tell an author’s favourite when I see one!

10. MY WISHLIST FOR SEASON TWO
(this is not an invitation to tell me what actually happens, I know you’ve all seen it already)

*Everyone is happy and no one has any problems ever again. Okay, that’s probably not realistic. Let’s try:

*Cersei enacts some measure of control over Joffrey, now she’s got over the shock of having raised a right little psychopath. We’d all rather have her on the throne than him, right? Right?

*No one rapes anyone.

*Some form of unionism for all the prostitutes since they are obviously the key to the economy of the Seven Kingdoms. They kick out Littlefinger and start running their own damn brothels, with adequate healthcare.

*Daenerys gets to interact with SOMEONE in the rest of the main cast.

*Ditto Jon Snow.

*Tyrion Lannister and Catelyn Stark team up to fight crime.

*Arya rescues Sansa because someone has to, and she should use her jammy luck for the greater good.

*Winter actually turns up.

*At least two characters have enjoyable sex without paying for it or somehow suffering because of it.

*Tyrion rides into battle again because the look on his face last time was priceless.

*A death scene even funnier than Daenerys’ brother and the “gold crown” which was pretty awesome.

*Dragons dragons dragons.

*More jousting.

*No one rapes anyone. Yes, it was worth saying twice.

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8 Responses to “Hack, Slash, Squish: Gender and Sex In Season One of Game of Thrones”

  1. Grant Watson Says:

    I have only watched one episode of Season 2 so far, and can’t spoil you if I wanted to.

    My only surprise at the death of Ned Stark is that *anyone* didn’t see the target on his back from episode one. Aside from the presence of Sean Bean (the human spoiler, as I’ve seen him referred to by several people), the character is written in such a fashion that execution is the only resolution to his story that makes sense.

    I love Sansa Stark. The character probably grew more than anyone else in the entire season. I’m finding myself quite fearful for her wellbeing.

    As for all the sex, I think the only place it felt genuinely gratuitious was that one scene with prostitutes being taught how to be saucy, or whatever. That was some uncomfortable viewing.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    That is totally the scene where my eyes fell out of my head for rolling too hard. And you know why? Because the exposition didn’t start until well over halfway through the scene, and until right at the end of it (where Littlefinger reveals that the manly bloke who beat him up for eyeing off Cait was not Sean Bean but his brother) it was mostly stuff we already knew!

    So completely gratuitous. But really half the other sex scenes were gratuitous too, our brains just told us they were plot relevant because what was being said concurrently WAS plot relevant.

  3. tansyrr Says:

    Oh and something I have been impressed by, sexposition aside, is the dripfeed of complicated backstory, the bane of all fantasy writers, and one of the hardest things to get right. And it’s mildly hilarious that there at least two really vital and relevant characters to the story whom we haven’t met yet.

  4. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I have a post when you are ready Tansy, for when you get to Salaador Saan in season 2. I also think that some of the treatment of women as sexual things to be degraded is underlined and bolded in a couple of scenes (what Martin had written would have been sufficient) again season 2. One of which made me not bother with watching it.

  5. Susan Loyal Says:

    Chuckle. Your reactions were so much fun! Thank you.

    1. I’m inclined to think that this is a matter of camera angles rather than kink or a weird idea about historical period. The position allows the camera to see both actors’ faces without much effort.

    4. Do so agree. But it’s not really HBO’s fault, as all that ick is in the books.

    5. “Who would win in a duel between Cersei and Atia of the Julii? I don’t know but I would watch the hell out of that show!” Amen, sister. I’m watching that show in my head every time I’m stuck in traffic/a waiting room/an annoying situation from now on. What a great idea! The TV Cersei beats the book Cersei all hollow, in my opinion.

    8. I didn’t bother to do an exact count or anything, but I think this effect is down to HBO. There are plenty of prostitutes in the books, but they don’t seem to be, you know, simply EVERYWHERE to the same extent.

    9. YES! Also, Sansa is the one character who is interested in epic and romantic stories and can therefore act as a kind of commentary on narrative expectations as her life resists fitting the mold she has been led to expect for a princess.

    10. Unions. Now that’s a level of social change that would transmogrify Westeros. Guilds get mentioned a couple of times in the books, but they just don’t seem as important as they actually were, and even less so for the TV show. Great list of wishes.

    I’ll be curious about your reactions to season 2.

  6. Cora Says:

    I enjoyed your commentary very much and it’s pretty much in line with my own reactions, especially since I also enjoyed Game of Thrones a lot more than I thought I would.

    Since I actually read the first book (though not the rest) way back when, I actually knew what would happen to Ned. Nonetheless, he really did provoke it with his honour before death attitude. Never understood the Sansa hate either, since she’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

    As for the sexposition, at least we get a gay sexposition scene (the younger brother of the king and the knight of the flowers) at one point, which was a pleasant change from all the heterosexual and fake lesbian sexposition scenes.

    I agree on the butt sex BTW. Indeed, when Daenerys announced her pregnancy to the delight of her husband, I said, “See, it works if you actually putting it in the right hole for once.” But then HBO shows always have sex scenes that look horribly uncomfortable and designed to put viewers off sex for life. HBO sex is a joke in this house.

    As for the surfeit of prostitutes, what I do find interesting is that most of them are not played by US/UK actresses, but by women from other European countries, because apparently having shot explicit sex scenes still keeps an actress from being taken seriously in the US/UK, so women from those countries are more reluctant to play those scenes. Indeed, one of the prostitutes – Tyrion’s girlfriend Shae – is played by a very fine actress, Turkish German actress Sibel Kekili, who even won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival a few years ago and has a regular TV gig on a German cop show. As a result, I always enjoy the scenes with Shae and Tyrion. The nudity wouldn’t be a problem for Ms. Kekili either, since she appeared nude on camera before. Luckily, Shae gets a bigger part in season 2.

  7. Geek Media Round-Up: October 29, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind Says:

    [...] Hack, Slash, Squish: Gender and Sex In Season One of Game of Thrones [...]

  8. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks for that, Cora, some interesting stuff there. I was also pleased to see the gay sexposition (and interested to see how that particular subplot will turn out). I didn’t know that about the actresses who play prostitutes, but I have to say I am relieved to know they are actresses who ARE comfortable with that material.

    Shae is great, I look forward to seeing her character explored further in Season 2.

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